Saturday, November 12, 2005
Peter Drucker, Dead at 95
The bulk of management books today are just that: bulk (there are a few exceptions, of course). They are filled with prescriptions for following a few steps here, make some tweaks there, and that's all you have to do. Drucker's books are not like that. He's not there to solve any problems for you or to put band-aids on thorny situations. Things are never that easy, especially as you move up in managerial positions where you need to constantly think about the future and take into account contingencies that may never happen, and learn that nothing is ever certain.
While the bulk of the stories about Drucker are bound to be glowing, there were always issues I never felt all that comfortable with. Drucker was the last remaining person living who studied economics from Keynes and Schumpeter. You can see Keynes in his work, as Drucker had some affection for big government, and very often big corporations. You can see Schumpeter (if you've heard the phrase "creative destruction," that's from him) in his discussions about entrepreneurship and innovation. Drucker liked "big" more than he liked small and medium. "Big" was his audience, though he would never shy away from telling "big" when it was fat, lethargic, and protective of its turf, when it really needed to be nimble, astute, and innovative. Reading Drucker could help small business people, but he wasn't really for them. He was more in the camp of getting "big" to work.
Some people have told me that Drucker's conclusions were obvious to anyone who was reasonably informed, and therefore not really worth reading. I remember making a comment about that to a management professor about Douglas MacGregor's Theory X and Theory Y. I was quickly reminded that you had to understand things in context, in the way people knew them at that time. Drucker always had a way of laying out the case, in good detail, and building to an insightful conclusion. I always found his conclusions, however, to have a richness to them, and an appreciation of subtlety that was not found in most management books. The academics never seemed to like his lack of footnotes, or his lack of "latest research." They clearly missed the point. The man wasn't doing studies to help him get tenure; he was way beyond that. Drucker's synthesis was usually far beyond what you could find in a classroom. He was teaching people how to think, something sorely needed in business schools, and missing from most case classes.
Another aspect of Drucker was discussed in a book from the late 1980s, A Great Place to Work, by Robert Levering (which has long-spawned a conference and an annual compilation of companies that fit their criteria). In it, he compared Tom Peters and Peter Drucker, and other management gurus. Essentially, Drucker's work characterized management as professional, and often elitist. Peters characterized managers as coaches. Drucker tended to make sure that people knew who was in charge. Peters would use phrases like managers need to "run blocking" so that people could get their work done. Peters generally hated organizations; Drucker didn't love them, but hated the inefficient ones that lacked leadership. After a while of reading both of them you get the sense that Drucker would have fired Peters the first chance he got.
As marketers, we owe Drucker a great debt of gratitude. Marketing was not taken seriously until Drucker explained it. Before then, it was distribution and sales. Marketing was something that soap companies like P&G and cigarette companies did. He gave the discipline of marketing visibility in the boardroom, though you will rarely, if ever, see Drucker's name in any marketing textbook.
Back when I was teaching (it's hard to believe I last walked into a classroom 12 years ago), I required Effective Executive in my organizational behavior classes. I didn't want young skulls full of mush to escape an undergraduate business program without knowing something about Drucker's work. Keynes is famous for saying "in the long run, we are all dead." Keynes' work has not stood the test of time, but Drucker's will. Keynes is dead. Drucker won't suffer that same fate because thinking is important no matter what business era you're in.
HBR article: Kantross, A. M. "Why Read Peter Drucker?" Harvard Business Review 80. 1 (1980): 74-82. I wish I could find a link to it. If someone has a link, please let me know; if someone has a copy, can you send it to me?
Official comment from Claremont Graduate University, whose business school was named after Drucker:
A 2004 USA Today story on his 95th birthday:
Two good stories about Drucker's relevance today:
Brief article on Schumpeter http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/10.03/schumpeter.html
One of my favorite articles on Keynes http://www.calbaptist.edu/dskubik/keynes.htm